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Campaign attacks heat up in Pinellas County Commission races

Jim Coats, former Pinellas sheriff, criticized Peter Nehr on his Internet cafe ties.

Jim Coats, former Pinellas sheriff, criticized Peter Nehr on his Internet cafe ties.

The cordiality couldn't last.

With days to go until Tuesday's primary, what had been a couple of relatively polite Pinellas County Commission races have turned a bit ugly.

The week started with state Sen. Jack Latvala urging voters in an open letter to pick someone other than former state Rep. Peter Nehr in the crowded District 4 Republican primary. In the letter posted on Facebook and sent to the local media, Latvala criticizes his former colleague for "personal financial and ethical lapses."

Now former Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats is joining the fray.

He said he also doesn't think Nehr is fit for office.

In 2011, while he was serving in the state House, Nehr owned an Internet sweepstakes cafe at a time when Coats and others were ramping up efforts to rid the state of what they considered illegal gambling, the former sheriff said. Coats traveled to Tallahassee several times to lobby lawmakers to ban the cafes.

"It was clearly, in our view, against the law and (Nehr) tried to get me to give them a pass," Coats said. "I don't think we need somebody on the County Commission who takes that kind of position on that kind of activity."

Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, didn't mention specific criticisms of Nehr in his letter but in an interview pointed to past media coverage. Nehr has twice declared bankruptcy, and the Tampa Bay Times found that after he lost his bid for a fourth term in the House, he used campaign funds to pay his live-in girlfriend, an acupuncturist, $22,000 for what he said was "consulting, editing and fundraising" work.

Nehr has said the woman worked hard on his campaign and deserved compensation. In an interview Monday, he called Latvala's attack "desperation" and said personal issues have nothing to do with his work as a commissioner.

Nehr didn't return messages from the Times on Wednesday or Thursday, but he has gone on the offensive, too.

In a piece that hit mailboxes this week, Nehr calls two of his challengers — retired dentist Johnny Johnson and Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers — "RINOs," or "Republicans in Name Only."

The mailer features a 2012 photo of Johnson holding campaign signs for Democratic candidates Charlie Justice and Janet Long, who would go on to unseat two of the County Commission's Republican incumbents who voted to stop adding fluoride to the county water supply. The sign also includes the image of a tooth and the phrase "pro-fluoride." Johnson is wearing a pillowy, smiling tooth.

The flier claims he gave almost $500 to Justice and Long. It also notes that Johnson and Eggers support the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum, a Nov. 4 ballot item that would raise the county's sales tax by a penny to expand bus service and build a light rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

"If Johnny Johnson is supported by Democrats, acts like a Democrat, will vote to increase taxes like a Democrat, then he should have ran as a Democrat," the flier says.

Johnson said he supported Justice and Long on behalf of county and state dental associations on the "nonpartisan issue" of returning fluoride to the water supply. Long and Justice had vowed to reverse a vote by incumbents Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock to stop adding the cavity-fighting mineral.

"It would have gone against every fiber of mine not to have done what I know was right," Johnson said.

Johnson and Eggers say the Greenlight plan isn't perfect but is worthy of support to improve mass transit and spur economic development. Eggers said his record on the Dunedin City Commission illustrates his fiscal conservatism.

"It's not about Republican or Democrat, it's about getting things done for our residents," he said.

In the countywide District 2 Republican primary, state Rep. Ed Hooper has attacked incumbent Norm Roche with a mailer that features photos of Roche and Charlie Crist superimposed in a pea pod.

"Norm Roche and Charlie Crist have a lot in common: Both switched parties for political gain," the piece says.

It notes that Roche, who won as a Republican in 2010, ran as a Democrat three times, challenging "outstanding Republicans like Karen Seel, Neil Brickfield. Ronnie Duncan, J.J. Beyrouti and Lucile Casey."

The other side of the mailer includes excerpts of Times stories chronicling controversies in Roche's first year. It devotes the most space to the revelation that Roche "admitted to using a false name to slam St. Petersburg" on the Times website, and includes a couple of those choice quotes.

"I guess I should be flattered by his desperation," Roche said. "It's classic Tallahassee fare, but that's where these guys are trained."

Hooper said an opponent's documented record is fair game.

"If I had sent out a piece that alleged Commissioner Roche had done X, Y and Z and had nothing to back that up, that's different," Hooper said. "That's wrong."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

Campaign attacks heat up in Pinellas County Commission races 08/21/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2014 11:31pm]

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